Forest Service contracts for aircraft onboarding analysis

When we saw the solicitation above and read the detailed description, we thought the U.S. Forest Service was planning to add more air tankers to their fleet or resurrect the Coast Guard HC-130H program, but that turned out to not be the case.

The solicitation seeks to hire seven contract personnel, with most of them being required to work out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It closed April 10 after being open for only about two weeks.

Their tasks will include:

  • Program and project management support;
  • Development of operations and management strategy;
  • Acquisition program support for aviation support contracts;
  • Technology insertion for aviation assets and facilities;
  • Analysis and implementation of supportability services for airframe, engine, and avionics.
  • Economic analysis for technology insertion and transformation efforts;
  • Safety program support for aviation and ground operations.

In February the Administration announced their desire to abandon the acquisition and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H’s into firefighting air tankers after spending tens of millions on the project. They intend to operate one this year that is partially complete, borrowing a slip-in MAFFS retardant system.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, using a MAFFS unit to spray retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

We asked Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones for a plain text translation of the language in the solicitation:

This solicitation is for engineering services needed for the USDA Forest Service to have one HC-130H equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) available to fly wildfire suppressions this year (2018) as in 2015 and 2017. The current contract for these services expires May 31st.

Ms. Jones supplied an update on the future of the HC-130H air tanker program:

Section 1098(a) of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the USDA Forest Service for use as Airtankers in wildfire suppression. Based on recent increased private sector investment in Next Generation Airtankers, the agency has determined that government-owned Airtankers are no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required Airtanker needs. As such, the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget notes that the USDA Forest Service will seek Congressional support to terminate the NDAA provisions pertaining to agency-owned HC-130H aircraft. Any changes or modifications to these provisions will require Congressional action.

So apparently this contract for seven people mostly working out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will be to support one aircraft. If, however, unlike Ms. Jones’ description, they could perform these services for the entire USFS Fire and Aviation Management aircraft fleet, including contracting, it could be a worthwhile investment.

We are reminded that in June, 2015, 522 days after the USFS HC-130H acquisition began, they came to a conclusion, according to a Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

 

34 Type 2 helicopters awarded contracts

The contract was effective April 6.

Above: A Bell 205A-1 Type 2 helicopter lands at the Salmon, Idaho helitack base while working on wildfires in the area, July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

New exclusive use contracts have been awarded for 34 Type 2 firefighting helicopters. Announced by FedBizOps on April 6, the duration is for one base year through April 30, 2019, with the possibility of 3 one-year renewal option periods. The U.S. Forest Service has shown by how they manage the air tanker and Type 1 helicopter contracts that the option periods are definitely not a sure thing after cutting those aircraft during recent optional years.

All of the Type 2 helicopters are Bell products: 205, 210, and 212. The daily availability rates range from $5,500 to $8,800 while the hourly rates are $1,884 to $2,175.

The last Type 2 exclusive use contract awarded in December, 2013 for 31 helicopters also specified one base year with three optional years. The contract before that was for 33 helicopters.

The Forest Service also has helicopters on Call When Needed contracts, on the hope that they will be available when the phone rings. CWN aircraft, both fixed and rotor wing, cost more than exclusive use ships. For example, the 2017 average daily rate for large federal call when needed air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Incident Command System specifications helicopters
Incident Command System specifications for helicopters. Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide, 2016.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brian.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Only 40% of requests for Type 1 helicopters were filled on wildfires in 2017

Last year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 ships by 18%.

Above: N137BH, a Sikorsky 70A or “Firehawk” helicopter, flies to refill its water bucket after dropping on the Rankin Fire in South Dakota September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 5:34 p.m. MT February 8, 2018)

The stats are in for the use of firefighting helicopters in 2017. The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest used on fires, carrying 700 to 2,800 gallons.

One important change in 2017 was the 18 percent reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contract. For several years the U.S. Forest Service had contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled

These contracts require continuous availability throughout the mandatory availability period, which can be 180 days or more. Other helicopters may or may not be procured on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract. A CWN aircraft could be tied up on something else or undergoing heavy maintenance when the phone in the office rings asking if they can respond to a fire. And CWN aircraft cost the government much more to operate than EU resources.

These large helicopters are beloved by wildland firefighters, since they can strategically drop with pinpoint accuracy thousands of gallons of water or retardant while working close air support with ground personnel. This can cool and slow the spread of the fire, enabling crews to work nearer the fire edge. A series of water drops can enable hand crews to make steady progress on active flanks of the fire. Helicopters can often refill with water from a nearby lake or tank, making 5 to 15 minute turnarounds. A fixed wing air tanker that has to refill at an airport takes much longer.

The six helicopters that were cut last year:

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

What do aircraft studies recommend?

In March, 2017 when it was revealed that the six helicopters were being cut, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones explained the agency’s rationale:

At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.

She said “Up to 30 additional Type 1 helicopters” are on Call When Needed contracts, which includes the six that no longer have EU contracts.

The Airtanker Modernization Strategydoes not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers. At the beginning of the 2017 western fire season there were 20 large and very large air tankers on EU contracts plus two water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Our opinion

As this is being written, the politicians we elect to represent us in Washington are trying to put together a last minute (literally) federal budget that will keep the government from shutting down again tonight. They are proposing to increase the dollars spent on Defense by $165 billion. This would raise the total military budget for the next two years to $1.4 trillion. (A source in D.C. told us there is a chance the legislation will include a fix to the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression.)

Everyone agrees that the military needs to be adequately funded, but in 2016 the amount the U.S. spent on defense was almost equal to what the next 14 countries combined spent.

Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post, February 9, 2016:

On Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released its Military Balance 2016 report, which seeks to examine closely the changing nature of military power. On a grand scale, the report showed – yet again – that U.S. military spending easily dwarfed the rest of the world. With a defense budget of around $597 billion, it was almost as much as the next 14 countries put together and far larger than the rest of the world.

military spending
Military spending, U.S and the rest of the world. Washington Post.

Much of the defense budget is spent in countries on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the defense of our Homeland gets cut. Last year we saw 18 percent fewer Type 1 helicopters and the number of large air tankers was 57 percent of the recommendation in the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy.

Our suggestion is to prioritize the defense and protection of our citizens, homeland, forests, parks, grasslands, refuges, prairies, and wildlands FIRST, before considering spending trillions on the other side of the world.